Nonprofit Technology 101: A case study

This fall, I made presentation about nonprofit technology at a local university.  The 200 students in the course were master’s degree candidates in the school of computer and information science.  Since very few of them were familiar with the operations of small nonprofit organizations, I prepared this hypothetical scenario.

The situation:

Chris is the systems manager (SM) for Helping Out, a nonprofit organization with ten employees and a budget of $500,000 a year. Helping Out’s mission is to serve anyone in need of aid following a major natural disaster that occurred last year in a metropolitan area; they seek to offer counseling, food pantries, housing assistance, and economic development. Chris works half time for Helping Out for a salary of $25,000 a year, and has an annual information systems budget of $15,000. The latter amount covers hardware, software, internet access, and consulting services.

Helping Out currently has three PCs and two Macs, all of which are over three years old. Two of the PCs and one of the Macs are hooked up to a local area network and have internet access, which Chris manages. (The other PC and Mac are over five years old and are not compatible with the LAN’s operating system.)

They currently track their interactions with stakeholders (such as clients, local community groups, concerned citizens, and elected officials) with index cards. Donors are tracked on an Access database that Chris put together. Finances are tracked on Quickbooks.

In addition to maintaining the desktop systems, the local area network, the Access database, and Quickbooks, Chris is responsible for updating the organization’s web site, its Twitter account, and its Facebook page, on the grounds that “Chris knows about computers.” Likewise, Chris is responsible for creating financial reports for the board and auditors with data received from the chief financial officer (CFO), because “Chris knows about Excel.”

The chief executive officer (CEO) recently read a blog article about the importance of constituent relationship management (CRM), and is particularly excited to learn that Salesforce.Com (a software as a service application) is being used widely by nonprofit organizations. The article explains that the Salesforce Foundation will grant free licenses to nonprofits on request and also urges the desirability of integrating constituent tracking with financial records.

Meanwhile, Community Philanthropy, a local grantmaking organization that donates about $200,000 a year to Helping Out, has urged the CEO and CDO (the chief development officer, who is a fundraiser) to start reporting back on their programmatic outcomes. Community Philanthropy is interested in knowing the demographic profiles of the populations that Helping Out is serving, and in knowing how many dollars and how many person-hours it takes to meet the organization’s goals in delivering counseling, food pantries, housing assistance, and economic development services.

The CEO calls a meeting with the SM, the CFO, and the CDO, and asks Chris implement Salesforce as a CRM that will integrate with Quickbooks. The goal is to support better case management, outcomes reporting, financial management, and fundraising.

Chris agrees that the right platforms – correctly implemented, well integrated with each other, and properly maintained – will significantly improve operations and support the organization’s goals. However, Chris also has some serious concerns:

  • Chris is a systems administrator, not a programmer, and would need a significant course of training to be able to implement this project adequately.
  • This project will extremely time-consuming, and Chris will either need to drop some responsibilities or be paid for more hours.
  • The alternative would be to retain an outside consultant to do the implementation, and such consultants are not only scarce but expensive.
  • Chris knows, from speaking with other nonprofit technology professionals, that some similar organizations that attempted this implementation consider it an expensive failure. Often the reasons given for considering the project a failure are as superficial as finding that employees intensely disliked the user interface.

The question:

How should Chris respond – in this meeting, and thereafter – to this challenge?

What are you own thoughts about this case study?  How, indeed, should the organization’s systems manager respond?

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3 thoughts on “Nonprofit Technology 101: A case study

  1. Amy Quinn 11/20/2012 at 11:49 am Reply

    I have two questions: Is there a strategic plan and is there a technology plan? Technology needs to align with strategy. Although I believe that CRM is central to success on all fronts, it doesn’t appear that enough conversation and planning has occurred around this topic. In addition, all user groups at the organization need to be considered and brought into the process of acquiring a new CRM. “Buy In” and leadership commitment will affect adoption. Clearly the expectations around the tech position are too high.

    I’ve posted some blogs recently about how technology is the differentiator- perhaps it will help the discussion. Also, Ed Happ presented “IT Strategy in a Chaotic World”. I also like “Insights into CRM for Nonprofits” by Heller Consulting.

    Please let me know how the discussion goes…

  2. Lana Leon 11/21/2012 at 12:04 pm Reply

    What first caught my attention is that initial meeting the CEO has where Chris is not involved and the decision was already made that Salesforce was the solution to adopt. Like Amy, I believe Chris needs to help the top management delineate the strategic and technology plans before decisions are made.

  3. steveheye 12/28/2012 at 10:10 am Reply

    I would agree with Lana and Amy, a more proactive strategy and inclusion of Chris sooner would have been more ideal.

    I have seen too many people see the power of a software and think it can solve their problems, even before they define those problems. It is like the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where the answer is 42, but you don’t know the question.

    A tool like Salesforce is very seductive and is a great tool, however the software won’t stop you from implementing it wrong. It is very flexible and allows you to do a great number of things. But if you start using it without a plan of how you want to use the data, chances are you won’t be able to get the data out in a meaningful way. You need to have your business processes defined and then have some experienced help to implement Salesforce.

    But beyond the challenges with Salesforce (a tool that I really like), is to question the jump to a solution. I would suggest some sort of comparison to similar size or similar focus organization to see what software they use. I would also check with key funders to see if there are recommendations for CRM solutions.

    Anyway, just my extra thoughts beyond the great comments of Lana and Amy. I do also blog about similar topics.

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